LIKE NO ONE ELSE BUT HERSELF
Jan Mark’s writing career, halted by her death aged 62 earlier this month, was so full of landmarks that there was barely space to squeeze between them. She published her first children’s book, Thunder and Lightnings, aged 33 after a first career as an art and English teacher. It won two major awards on publication in 1976, the first in a stream of books over three decades (at least 80, all but a handful for children). Chief among the landmarks is probably The Eclipse of the Century, her millennium-closing book about Keith, a student who after a near-death experience spends his student loan on a ticket to an invented Central Asia republic for the millennium eve to end them all. ‘450 pages of fiction that’s like nothing else but itself… a writer working at the top of her extraordinarily imaginative and quirky form’ was the TES verdict (April 30, 1999).
But prominent among the other landmarks must be The Oxford Book of Children’s Stories, edited by Jan in 1993, and encompassing 250 years of short stories written in English for children. Or Handles (1983), her second Carnegie Medal winner, about a girl who finds her true self in a motorbike repair shop. Or They Do Things Differently There (1994), about the parallel universe that two bored schoolgirls create for their town. Or Heathrow Nights (2000), a novel about three misfit boys (many of Jan’s books have strong boy appeal) forced to spend a week at the London airport, whose predicaments overlap with Hamlet’s. Common to all are an ear for how children and teenagers speak, a hotline to how they think and, in many cases, rewards for readers willing to work at the books, as in The Eclipse of the Century and the equally complex Useful Idiots (2004).
Jan also enjoyed the challenge of winning over children for whom books are not open doors. When she died she had just delivered two manuscripts to Barrington Stoke, which specialises in books for children with low reading ages. These titles, to be published later this year, reveal her versatility: a book on Formula One racing for the FYI (fiction with stacks of facts) series and King John and the Abbot, a story for eight to 12-year-olds, based on a traditional ballad. At the same time she was working on her next major novel, a landmark under construction, for David Fickling.
As literary editor of The TES, I knew that between all these commitments she would make time to read a stack of children’s fiction for us, as she had regularly for two decades. I had been putting books aside for her next piece at the time she died. Jan’s reviewing for The TES was a drop in the ocean of her achievement, but it was a crucial drop that helped teachers and children find their way to the best books.
It’s easy to find regular reviewers for the children’s books that seem most like adult books; literary novels for teenagers and ‘young adults’. Much more rare is a suitably qualified reviewer who will take equally seriously the job of assessing books for children still learning to read, who is also a passionate reader and writer, so Jan was a commissioning editor’s dream.
She read up to 20 books in each batch I sent her, selecting five or six for review. She fitted this work for The TES (and the Guardian and Carousel magazine) around meeting teachers and children on school visits, teaching creative writing to adults and her own writing.
Jan said much that needed to be said about standards in children’s fiction, and it was not always what authors and publishers wanted to read. Her bugbears included books written by teenagers who had not read enough to do more than produce an inferior copy of what they had read: ‘experiments that ought to be carried out in decent privacy, not marketed as the masterwork of infant prodigies’. (This quote and others here come from Jan’s TES reviews over the past two years, but I have omitted dates and other details to spare blushes.) What else made her incensed? Marketing campaigns that poured publishers resources into safe sales instead of helping to build new writers or promote sound but less commercial books. Authors who had written a trilogy where one book seemed more than enough. She was particularly suspicious of fantasy trilogies, or any fantasy that involved ‘people with daft names speaking in tongues’. She was barbed about ‘literacy propaganda’; stories that broke off rather than ended; sloppy editing (‘Note to all concerned: we do not wrack our brains, we rack them’).
When she liked a book she could be generous. She praised Irena Green’s You Can Do It, Stanley in the Corgi Pups series (The TES, October 22, 2004) as ‘a triumph of finding magic in the commonplace’; the late Joan Aiken (January 21, 2005, in a review of Aiken’s posthumous novel, The Witch of Clatteringshaws) was ‘solid gold original to the very end’. Now it’s time for someone to say that, and more, about Jan. Many will.
(C) Geraldine Brennan, 2006